Simon’s school of life


Simon scowled. He crossed his arms. He crossed his legs and looked at the floor.  Diana, his wife, on the other hand, exclaimed, “Yes, we love it!  When can we start?”

Moments before, I had ended my introduction.  Growing more cautious in my approach to classes, doing what I can to guarantee my safety and considering my time in China is coming to an end, I now insist on meeting parents and getting their permission and approval before I agree to teach their children.

My introduction –after an exchange of names and smiles and compliments– consists of my background as a teacher and my experience in China.  It usually begins with the following:  “For the past five years, I’ve taught English in Europe, the US and, for the last two years, in China.  In college, I majored in Philosophy which loosely translates as ‘the love of wisdom or love of truth.’  In my experience, if there is anything that China is allergic to, more than Democracy, more than Capitalism and more than the Western way of life, it is truth.  China seems to be offended by and allergic to the truth.”

Insert Simon’s scowl.

“The truth, as best I understand it, is what I teach.  I teach it for two reasons.  One, I believe that truth is a fundamental right of all people in every country in the world regardless of whether their country of origin chooses to recognize and acknowledge that right and two, students in college in the West are expected to have some familiarity with history, current events and the world around them.  In other words, students are expected to discover the truth.  Without this, students are thought to be, at the very least, ignorant and, at the very most, stupid and I will not tolerate any of my kids being called either.”

I continue with a vague overview of what that truth consists of, opinions, ideas, historical facts, etc.  I explain that one of my goals –aside from my students passing the required exams that ensure acceptance into Western universities which is each of my student’s dream– is a very strong interest (bordering on obsession), that my students be able to think for themselves; that they be able to form an opinion, hold an opinion and support an opinion. I explain that the mind is most comfortable as it is and any attempt to open it, is sure to result in pain, confusion and discomfort (pure speculation on my part, I can assure you as I am still hoping my mind will one day open).  This discomfort is what I want.  I want my students to be uncomfortable as it means I am doing my job.  Part of this uncomfortable process of prying minds open takes work; homework, class work, discussion, debate and that I expect to be compensated, not only in cash but, more importantly, in the currency of blood, sweat and tears; the blood, sweat and tears of my students.

Let me interject here for just a moment.  I try to imagine myself sitting in a strange room, looking at and listening to a strange man with a bald head and a beard (something I’ve never seen before as Chinese, for the most part, cannot grow beards) telling me this and I try to imagine my response.  In no time at all, I reach a conclusion.  I would quickly and politely excuse myself from the predator in my presence and run as far away and as fast as I could; and not look back lest I risk being turned into a pillar of salt.  For I would be convinced that I was standing at the city gate of Gomorrah.

Instead, what I’m met with are a few blinks of the eye from children with puzzled faces (whom I can almost hear asking “Are you for real?”) and the wide eyes of astonished and adoring parents.  For reasons I have yet to understand (perhaps because I’m not a parent), parents, upon hearing my ominous omen, rather than run for the hills, want to kill the fattened calf, invite me to dinner and adorn me in the finest of purple silks and white linens…parents, that is except Simon.

Suspecting Simon was the most sane of the four in the room, I suggested they take a few moments to think this warning over, discuss it amongst themselves and that I’d pour myself another cup of coffee, return shortly and await their response.  I was sure Simon would talk some sense to them.

Five minutes later, when I returned to the room, I was greeted with six eyes ablaze and three smiling faces.  Everyone was smiling and excited…everyone, that is, except Simon. “Strange way of talking sense to the silly,” I thought.

“Now that you’ve had a chance to think this over, what say you?” I asked.

Insert Diana’s response and the nods of two excited teenagers.

I turned to Simon.  I was sure he’d voice his veto.  Arms and legs still crossed, his mouth still scowling, he managed to force a response through his frown, “I want whatever my wife wants.  She knows best.”  I was shocked!  What had become of Simon’s senses?  Was he cowardice or just Communist?  He was neither.  Simon, it seems, has graduated a school even more difficult than my own, a school on every continent and in every country, Simon has graduated the school of life.


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